The Workings of a Wheel: Flite builds us some hoops

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gt-helion-and-wheelworks-9769 The wheel has always fascinated me, and why wouldn't it? It's one of the oldest known inventions, with the earliest archeological example believed to be about 5500 years old. They get us from point A to point B every day, one way or another. Without the wheel, we'd be reduced to walking. It's not natural. So when we got the chance to have a look at the Wheelworks team and their slick operation in action, I was more than a little excited. And the best part? We get to ride them!

We headed over to the salubrious beachside suburb of Lyall Bay to meet up with Wheelworks' owner Tristan Thomas, a transplanted Canadian and former engineer who started the company in 2008 and has been churning out wheelsets in increasingly large numbers ever since. For the most part, Wheelworks' clientele has been mostly road-based, but that's changing rapidly of late, and the need for a differentiating branding became necessary. Hence, the MTB-specific brand Flite was born.

Tristan and his right hand man Gavin McCarthy ran us through the build process, and if you think it's just a matter of chucking some spokes in and giving them a few turns, well you'd be very far from the mark: the process Tristan has developed over the years is one of precision, order and involves more than a few tools and tricks that most other builders wouldn't even know of. I'll do my best to run you through the steps as we watched our Derby/Chris King/DT Flite x Spoke wheelset come to life.

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This is where it all starts. Tristan wrote the software that contains all the specifics of the customers' build: components, pricing, spoke length calculations. It also links to the invoice details, and where in the process the build is. The information then gets assigned one of these...

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...Its own little tub, where the spokes, nipples, hubs rim strips, valves, whatever is required for the build gets stored.

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Ours was number 29, which would've been cool if we were getting a 29er wheelset built, but instead didn't mean much at all. The rims we chose are the super-wide Derby 40mm jobs (that Rod has been riding for a while now) with Chris King hubs and DT AeroLite bladed spokes.

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The rims have their corresponding hook number. There's a few dollars worth of carbon hanging up there, and with 33 wheelsets to be built the guys are pretty busy. I got a little distracted by all the cool roadie paraphernalia on the wall, and needed to focus...

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Ah, that's better. A good workshop always has a good coffee machine, and Tristan fired up the Rocket for a couple of espressos. Right, where were we?

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After you've decided what rims, hubs and spokes you want, you can pick the colour of the decals and even what you want them to read, like your name or maybe even this... Caleb chose pink, not because he's a modern man comfortable with his masculinity, but to match the decals on his Nomad. Though, apparently fluoro orange is the hot colour right now.

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The Vector files for the outlines of the decals are sent to the printer, and that little yellow thing is the knife which cuts them out ready to apply.

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Gav applies the decals to the rim, and leaves the paper backing on through the build process so the decals don't get damaged. Those are the little details that matter.

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Next up the hub is measured from the outside of the axle to the centre of the flange with one of the many custom tools Tristan has made. This 'prototype' is from laser cut plastic scrap that he fangled together seven years ago and it worked so well he never got around to making another version. This calculates the effective base of the 'triangle' of the wheel, as measurements can vary between two identical hubs and this gets done for every wheel, even if the combination of rim and hub has been used before. The ERD (effective rim diameter) also often varies from rim to rim, even from the same batch. Each rim is measured at three points around its circumference to detect any variances in its roundness.

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Spoke length is spoke length, right? Wrong. A lot of mass produced spokes can vary in their stated length, which will affect the precision of the build. After the correct length is calculated, each and every spoke gets cut to the correct length...

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...and new threads are rolled onto them one by one. This ensures every spoke is exactly the same length, to 0.01mm.

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The spokes are laid out for the disc and non-disc/drive side of the wheel. The threads are dipped in grease to ensure corrosion-free life span and easier tensioning.

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This is cool. The hub sits on the centre spike, and the rim can be moved around it for easier placement of the spokes. And, you guessed it, it's a Tristan design.

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The trademark Wheelworks white spoke gets dropped in first, and the label on the hub is aligned so you can see it through the valve hole.

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Then each nipple is threaded onto the spoke with this little driver, which is set so that each nipple is threaded on the same amount. Alloy nipples are preferred, and Tristan says the fear of them is unfounded if they are used properly, i.e greased and tensioned evenly.

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Once the spokes are laced in, it's time for this Hi Tech Tool to hold the hub while the spokes are bedded into the flange.

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Tensioning is done next, and each nipple gets four full turns first up. Then each spoke is tensioned to +/- 1mm.

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Lance built your wheels. Each spoke is checked for perfect tension, which ensures perfect true.

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Peel off the decal backing, give 'em a wipe...

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...then Tristan photographs them for the web in his back corner studio. Voila!

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There are now three Spoke staffers on wide rims, Rod on the 40mm Derbys, Brett on 35mm Nexties, and now Caleb on the Derbys too. So is wider better? We'll let you know. We'll be giving these their maiden voyage today, first impressions soon, and a full review in the February issue of the magazine.

Thanks to Tristan and Gav for their time (and the coffee).